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One would think that the council would have started to listen to the people, but it has not. We have our own 55% question in Aberdeen, because there was a proposal to put a lovely new arts centre in Union Terrace gardens, a lovely Victorian park right in the centre of the city. It had the backing of the Scottish Arts Council and had most of its funding in place. Everything was ready and the lease was about to be signed with the council, which owned the land in the gardens, when one of our local businessmen came along with an offer of £50 million to cover over Union Terrace gardens and create a civic square. He said that he would do that only if the people of Aberdeen wanted it, and £300,000 of public money
later, spent on a consultation on which the council had said no public money would be used, 55% of those who took part said that they did not want the civic square, and 44% said that they did. Last week, how did the Liberal Democrats and the SNP on Aberdeen city council vote? Did they vote with the majority of people in the consultation? No, of course they did not. They voted to allow the civic square to go on to its next phase.
Some £50 million from a philanthropist and local businessman sounds like a lot of money. Who would dare to turn it down? It might seem churlish to suggest it. The problem is that the proposed civic square is not going to cost £50 million, or even £100 million. It was costed, very quickly, at £140 million. There was not supposed to be any taxpayers' money involved, but another £90 million will have to be found from somewhere. That is the position in Aberdeen-we have a bankrupt council, an economic crisis given the potential funding problems coming to us down the line, and a council that has decided to go on to the second stage of a grandiose scheme to raze a public park to street level when the majority of the population do not want it to happen. That is not democracy, and the people of Aberdeen are feeling angry and disfranchised because they have not had a say. I heard in the Queen's Speech that local communities are to be given power over planning, although I appreciate that that will not apply in Scotland. If that power for people in England means that local councils then ignore their views, the promise will have been hollow.
I have talked for longer than I meant to, but I wish to mention one more concern before I close. Although it is popular and may seem right to suggest that people should have access to cancer drugs that have not yet been properly registered, I worry that that proposal overrides the mechanism that the Labour Government put in place, which is the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence. I ask the Government to be clearer about whether that is in fact what the Conservative-Liberal coalition wants to do. Does it want to dismantle the whole apparatus of NICE? It was through NICE that we stopped the postcode lottery in drug funding, and it is through NICE that we ensure that drugs are safe and good value for money before they are made available to the population. I worry that if a drug company has a very expensive drug that it wants to sell, it will now be in a position to be more generous in its description of the efficacy of that drug. That would put pressure on patients, who would then put pressure on doctors to prescribe it, whereas it might not have got through the NICE appraisal scheme. We have the NICE appraisal for a good reason, and I worry that the new Government could undermine the whole basis of an organisation, which the Labour Government quite properly set up.
Perhaps it does not sound like it, but I am delighted to welcome the Queen's Speech today. It is interesting to be back and on the other side of the Chamber. The 1997 election and coming to Parliament was exciting, and returning to Parliament this time has been equally exciting. Perhaps, because there was no change of Government in 2001 and 2005, it was a bit of an anti-climax when we all arrived back-we simply had to get on with the work. This time, it has been fascinating, if only to watch the body language of Members opposite.
It is always a delight to follow the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Miss Begg). She said that she did not experience much difference in going into opposition from sitting on the Government side. It is a little like the man who said, "I tried rich and I tried poor, and on the whole, I prefer rich." I have tried Government and Opposition and I can tell her that, on the whole, I prefer Government because at least we can start to do things. That is what today is all about-the Queen's Speech has given us an action plan.
The hon. Lady was rightly very gracious about my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington). He spoke eloquently, passionately and without notes about his constituency. I congratulate him on his excellent contribution-I know that he has already received fan mail from the Front Bench. I am sure that he will go far in the House.
I am grateful to the people of Ribble Valley for sending me back to this place. I, too, had Liberal Democrats-my new allies-distributing leaflets in my constituency during the election campaign, pointing out that only the Liberal Democrat could beat the Conservative there. They went from second to third place, so I am equally grateful to the electors of Ribble Valley for that.
The sad loss towards the end of the previous Parliament of David Taylor and Ashok Kumar has been mentioned many times today. Both were decent men and good parliamentarians, and the House will miss them greatly.
On the day of the election, it became clear that there were problems in some polling stations-it happened in Ribble Valley five years ago-where people were turned away at 10 o'clock and not allowed to vote. Clearly, that should not be allowed to happen in future. I hope that the powers that be will reconsider not only the voting system but the process of voting so that people who join a queue to vote can cast their vote in some way, shape or form.
The postal voting system is far too lax, even now, despite the problems at the previous election. I still believe that people should have a good reason for casting a postal vote. As a member of the Council of Europe, I have observed elections throughout Europe. One thing we are told to look out for and prevent is family voting so that no pressure is put on members of a family. That is all well and good, but if entire families have postal votes, no regard is paid to that sort of voting. I am sure that family voting takes place in some cases. I therefore hope that we can reconsider postal voting.
I also hope that we can consider allowing early voting-perhaps five days before a general election-so that people can turn up at council headquarters with proof of identity and cast their vote early instead of having to wait for the day, particularly given the absurd delay between registering to vote and voting. I think that the deadline for registering for proxy and postal votes was 20 April. Many people did not know then that they would be away on 6 May for all sorts of work-related reasons and it would be better if the date could be extended or early voting were permitted.
I was delighted with the Queen's Speech-the first one with which I have been delighted for 13 years. The economy is at its heart. The hon. Lady mentioned her bankrupt council, but we have a bankrupt country, and that needs to be sorted out. Spending cannot continue at its current level. We must be more effective with the huge amount of taxpayers' money that we spend and ensure that we protect the front-line services on which people want their money to be spent. That will be a challenge for our new coalition.
Broadband has been mentioned. The Government want high-speed broadband internet connection to be made available. I represent a rural constituency and I want to ensure that the Government do not forget rural areas. When they roll out high-speed broadband, it must be made available to everybody. We do not want a digital deficit in rural areas, where access to high-speed broadband will boost employment.
The Queen's Speech also refers to limiting the number of non-European Union economic migrants entering the UK. I fully support that. After the economy, controlling the number of people who come to the UK was the No. 1 issue mentioned to me on the doorstep. We are a small island. We should use the benefits of being an island, but we also need to limit greatly the number of people who can come to this country.
The Queen's Speech also mentions the health service. We will ensure that patients have a voice and strengthen the role of doctors in the NHS. My hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) is sitting in his rightful place on the Front Bench. Clitheroe community hospital is close to my heart. It is superb and loved by everybody. We were promised a new hospital, which was delayed, even though the building programme started. If the voice of patients is to mean anything, I hope that the voices of the patients at Clitheroe will ensure that the new hospital is delivered for the people of Ribble Valley.
A Bill will be introduced to provide for a referendum on the alternative vote system. I had more than 50% of the vote, but I will campaign actively against the introduction of any form of proportional representation in this country. We currently have an aberration and we are making the best of it. However, I do not want that to become the norm. I want stable government and we can ensure that by not moving to some form of proportional representation. I will therefore campaign strongly on the streets of Ribble Valley in the referendum.
I served on the Select Committee on International Development for more than a year and I saw at first hand the excellent work that the Department for International Development and British taxpayers do throughout the world. The former Minister, the hon. Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas), is in his place. I have seen what the power of British taxpayers' support can achieve in, for example, water projects and providing medicines for those who suffer from HIV and AIDS. I have seen the new lease of life that people can be given. When one stares into the faces of people to whom the money has made a genuine difference, one feels proud. During the general election campaign, it was great to listen to people on the doorstep who said that they wanted us to carry on supporting such projects throughout the world. We talk about poverty in this country, but it
is nothing compared with the abject poverty in which too many people live-on less than $2 a day, in miserable conditions and with no hope. I am delighted that all the major political parties in the general election campaign spoke of raising the amount of money in the international development budget to 0.7% of GDP. I am even more delighted that my Government will fulfil that promise.
"Other measures will be laid before you."
Sir Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough) (Lab): I am grateful to you for calling me to speak, Mr Speaker, and I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans). Having been a parliamentary candidate in a rural area, I can commiserate with him. I understand the various problems that such areas have.
The hon. Member for Ribble Valley was very generous in his remarks about Ashok Kumar and David Taylor. Both were close friends of mine, and they are greatly missed. I am glad that the hon. Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) is still in his place, as he will see the generosity of spirit that passes across the House when Members from different sides talk about parliamentary colleagues.
In his speech, the hon. Member for Watford mentioned immigration, which is a subject that we encountered on doorsteps all the time. For me, it is a conundrum. What is immigration? Are we talking about the asylum seekers who come to our country and claim asylum, or about the Europeans who come here under the European programme? Or are we talking about the problems caused to housing and services such as the NHS?
All parties have taken the question of immigration on board, but I am not yet entirely sure how we can deal with it. I notice that the Government have mentioned a cap on immigration, which would probably apply to immigrants from Commonwealth countries. The issue needs to be taken seriously and cautiously: the Government must try to meet the demands of the public, yet at the same time give some leadership on the matter.
The hon. Member for Watford also mentioned the alternative vote system. I am very glad to see the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) in his place. He will know that I have fought long and hard for the first-past-the-post electoral system, and that I am not a supporter of proportional representation. The Liberals may have wanted that system since 1923, but their ardour has cooled somewhat.
The right hon. Gentleman said that the alternative vote system was a step on the way. Scripture says, "In My Father's house are many mansions": I presume that the right hon. Gentleman is moving from the mansion of first past the post to the alternative vote and, in his best hopes, to proportional representation. I often wonder why the Liberal Democrats want to have a change in the voting system when the present system has put them in government.
Sir Alan Beith:
There are indeed many situations in which my party would not benefit from a different system, as there are areas where we get more seats than
the votes would justify. The same is true of the Labour party in the north-east, but the number of seats should reflect the numbers of votes cast. When people go to vote at the polling station, they should know that the outcome will reflect the actual votes cast.
Sir Stuart Bell: I have heard that old argument over many years. The question of fairness in the voting system goes back to Jeremy Thorpe in 1974. We will have many arguments on the subject but, if the Conservative party has an ideology and a belief in itself, it will want to become the majority party again one day.
The Labour party is a social democratic party. We will evolve our social democracy, and we believe in governing on behalf of what we believe in. Neither the Conservative nor the Labour parties would put themselves in a situation of permanent coalition with the Liberal Democrats. They might support the Conservatives this time, but they might support the Labour party at another election, as has happened in Germany. Therefore, I join the hon. Member for Ribble Valley in his campaign against the alternative vote system.
I am very glad to see that the hon. Member for Watford is still in his seat. He is learning to stay in this House of Commons beyond the person who speaks after him. I took a particular pleasure in listening to him, as I spent some of my childhood in Watford. I remember Gammons lane, Leavesdon aerodrome, Watford station and, of course, Watford football club. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that Watford has changed enormously since I went there as a child. I am sure that the diversity to which he referred is a great benefit to the town.
The hon. Gentleman spoke extremely well, if I may so without flattery. He must remember Adlai Stevenson's remark to that effect that flattery is fine as long as one does not breathe in. No doubt the hon. Gentleman will hear much flattery in this House but, on the occasion of his maiden speech, he will find that it is genuine. I shall give the hon. Gentleman some advice, however-the best speeches are those that come over well in the House but also read well in Hansard. One can sometimes make a very fine speech in the House that does not read very well in Hansard. The speeches that read well and come over well in the House are the finest ones.
The hon. Member for Ribble Valley said that the hon. Member for Watford did not use notes, but he also had his speech in his hand. That is a fine thing to do, as speaking on the Floor of the House is not a memory test. In his early days, the great Winston Churchill made a long speech but, 35 minutes into it, he forgot what he wanted to say. He did not have the speech with him, and he was stuck. From that time on, he always had his speech with him. Even when one does not refer to the text much, it is a comfort to have it in hand.
When a young man called Tony Blair first came into the House, I told him, "It's not a memory test. You're here to make a point. Therefore, while you may rely on your memory, you should always have a note somewhere." That is the last advice that I shall give to the hon. Member for Watford. The other piece that I would have given him was to make his maiden speech early, but it is too late for that now. He has done it and got it out of the way, and that is fine.
The hon. Member for Watford is fortunate in one sense and you, Mr Deputy Speaker, will understand this. When I made by maiden speech in 1983-and I am
glad that my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) referred to me-the Deputy Speaker who is in the Chair now followed me, and I have his words yet. The hon. Gentleman will remember this occasion in the years to come. One's maiden speech is probably one's best, but I do not want to discourage him yet.
In these debates, I normally follow the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood), but I have not had that opportunity today. He gives wonderful lectures in classical economics, and I have heard the same speech many times over many years. Ronald Reagan could have done no better. The Laffer curve was alive and well: reducing the rate of taxation increases the revenue that comes from it-we have heard all that before, many times. If we had followed his advice during the recession, I do not know where we would be today. It is probable that 500,000 jobs would have been lost, with more to come, but I do not want to get into a debate with the right hon. Gentleman at the beginning of a new Parliament. I have a great admiration for him, and he renders a great contribution.
The right hon. Member for Wokingham talked about this being a new Parliament. Those of us in the Chamber this afternoon who were in the previous Parliament will know how shabby it was in the end, and how disreputable it had become. We dishonoured ourselves in the eyes of the public and ruined our reputation.
We are now in a new Parliament, and every Member of Parliament has a new mandate. The people who voted us in expect the highest standards from us, and that is what we will give them. We should put the past behind us and become the kind of Parliament that we ought to be and will be in the future. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East also made that point.
The hon. Member for Watford spoke about his constituency. Since the last Queen's Speech, the constituency next door to my own has suffered the closure of the Corus steel mill, where the blast furnace has been mothballed. That unfortunate development cost 1,600 jobs and caused great anger in the local community. That anger was directed at the previous Labour Government, with people wanting to know what was going to be done about the matter. Nationalisation of the plant was suggested, but that was not open to the former Government, just as it is not open to the new Liberal-Conservative coalition.
The former Member of Parliament for Redcar, Vera Baird, paid a heavy price for all that went on. She lost a 12,000 majority on a 20% swing, and a Liberal Democrat was returned with a majority of 5,000. I wish him well, but I also convey my sincere regrets to Vera Baird. She was a fine Member of this House: she was Solicitor-General and she did not deserve her fate. However, her story is a great reminder to us all that our constituency interests are very important. I remember that she missed many meetings in Redcar because she had to be here for a vote in the House. It is extremely important that we link ourselves to our constituents and stay close to them. That is one of the lessons to be taken from what has happened, and it is of great importance for our constituencies.
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